Our current economic crisis has moved questions of the morality of greed back into the center of public discourse. Of course, there are those who are satisfied to take a few potshots at the obvious targets (here’s one: John Thain, CEO of Merrill Lynch reportedly asked for a $10M bonus while M-L lost over $11B last year and has received $10B in “bailout” funds so far). But this may miss the point.

Self-interest is one of our competing national religions and true believers will not be dissuaded by the apparent contradictions implicit in the current situation. We already have commentators who are saying that the failures can’t be attributed to the acquisitive compulsions of those who already have much more than they or their offspring could ever spend.

It reminds me of the film “Wall Street.”  In the film, Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, mentors a young trader played by Martin Sheen. In one scene the character played by Sheen asks, “How much is enough?”

“It’s not a question of enough, pal. It’s a zero sum game; somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made; it’s simply transferred.The assumption of the zero-sum game is the problem at the heart of the problem. It conditions people to believe that any gain by one person has to be matched by the losses of others. It is fundamentally a hopeless view of life because it has a static vision at its core. I’m not advocating a naive utopian view or some devotion to “progress” as an alternative. A realistic vision recognizes that the actual creation of wealth is difficult and time-consuming, requiring something with which we may not be very familiar: a commitment to the common good.

In the United States we have been pushing the limits of individualism for decades and we are now experiencing some of the costs. We haven’t wanted to pay taxes unless they went to pave the street in front our own house or educate our own children. We didn’t want to pay insurance premiums unless we were going to “get our money’s worth” from them. In California we somehow hoped to escape the obligation to educate our burgeoning diverse population by using gambling taxes.

The consequences? We’ve seen our infrastructure fragment. Our public universities and public education decried. Some commentators are predicting increased social unrest in the U.S. due to the wealth disparity that resembles that of some third world countries (U.N.-Habitat report).

The solutions are not simple, but all involve a reinvigoration of the public sensibility and a deepening awareness of our interdependence. This is as much a part of the American cultural history as is Wall Street, and in fact, it antedates it. Sarah Vowell in her new book on the Pilgrims provides the text of a speech by; Gov. John Winthrop to his fellow Pilgrims in 1630: “We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.”

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